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A die from Candela Obscura rests atop the gilded cover of the leatherette collector’s edition. Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

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Critical Role’s Candela Obscura is but a pale shadow of its inspiration, Blades in the Dark

The Core Rulebook falls short of the streaming program’s potential

Critical Role kicked off a new actual-play series in May titled Candela Obscura. Now its Darrington Press publishing imprint is ready with a tabletop role-playing game based on the same themes and mechanics. Starting Nov. 14, fans will be able to find Candela Obscura Core Rulebook for sale at their local game shop and online. But while the game may be embraced by fans of the program seeking episodic adventures set in the same fictional world, this initial release lacks either the depth or the novelty for much wider appeal.

Candela Obscura the game, just like the streaming program, uses the Illuminated Worlds system developed by Stras Acimovic and Layla Adelman. Acimovic is best known for his work on Scum and Villainy and Band of Blades, which both use the Forged in the Dark license of John Harper’s Blades in the Dark. Illuminated Worlds shares a lot of that same DNA. Candela Obscura designers Spenser Starke and Rowan Hall acknowledge that Harper’s work inspired both their mechanics and also the tone of the book’s intro, and Harper even designed the deluxe edition of the game’s cover. But Candela Obscura can’t hold a candle to the critically acclaimed Blades in the Dark game itself, or Harper’s evocative world-building.

A Black woman leaks black fluid from her nose, vapors from her mouth and eyes, as she turns into a skeleton. Image: Justin O’Neal/Darrington Press

Like Blades in the Dark, Candela Obscura employs a d6-based system where only the players roll dice and they can call on their own character resources to give an extra die to one of their allies. The difficulty system is also the same, with a roll of 6 being a true success and lesser rolls resulting in failure or success with complications. There are also countdowns — represented by dice used as numerical markers rather than by filling in a clock face with a pencil as in Blades in the Dark — used to ramp up tension by letting the players know the situation is about to escalate.

The game’s primary conceit is also similar to Blades in the Dark. Rather than playing a criminal gang operating in the haunted city of Doskvol, Candela Obscura players take on the role of members of the eponymous organization tasked with secretly protecting the world from occult threats. Instead of going on jobs, you’re sent on assignments that provide episodic adventures. You then spend downtime recovering, training, and building up your base of operations.

Character archetypes are also similar across both games, though Candela Obscura gives each of the primary options a pair of specialties rather than just an overarching role. A face can be a magician or a journalist, while the slink can be a detective or a criminal. This makes it easier to give characters highly specific abilities, like a detective’s Mind Palace, which allows them to get clues from the game master by piecing information together. But it also feels as though it railroads players into a narrow set of conceptual options.

Two books rest on a table filles with ephemera from the Fairelands.
Left to right, the standard and the collector’s edition of Candela Obscura Core Rulebook.
Photo: Darrington Press

Candela Obscura’s mechanics are surprisingly a bit gentler on the characters compared to Blades in the Dark. It seems a strange choice given this is meant to be a horror game. Characters have a drive pool for each of the game’s core stats — nerve, cunning, and intuition — representing the ability to push themselves and add extra dice to a roll. Higher permanent pools give them resistances they can use to avoid the consequences of a bad roll on an associated check. Each character also can gain back drive by using their specialty’s favored action, whether it’s a criminal hiding or a medium sensing.

As a result, characters have more resources to spend during adventures to ensure good rolls. They can even use them to sometimes outright ignore bad effects. Characters who are injured, exhausted, or affected by magic are afflicted by marks in the relevant key stat. Those can become scars if a character accumulates too many before resting and recovering. Probably the most dangerous thing players can do is choose to use dangerous magic themselves and take too many points of bleed — that is, the game’s term for damage from coming in contact with occult sources. But even the consequences of these scars are meant to be role-playing opportunities, not statistical or mechanical burdens. Characters never lose stats, but can shift them around to indicate how they’ve adapted to anything from being possessed to losing a limb.

The RPG is designed for episodic, monster-of-the-week-style adventures, suggesting GMs start a session with a cold open where some form of supernatural threat causes havoc. The party, which are members of a Candela Obscura chapter house, are gathered by their veteran NPC Lightkeeper and sent on an assignment. They’ll have to figure out what happened and ideally secure the cause of the problem so it can be taken to the organization’s stronghold, the Fourth Pharos.

Hellboy and Penny Dreadful are cited as explicit references, but the concept feels most like Warehouse 13 — the quirky yet beloved action-adventure series that mingled The X-Files with steampunk gadgets and occult tropes. While players will gain some benefits from their chapter house between sessions, there’s not nearly as much depth to the organization as there is to a criminal crew in Blades in the Dark. It’s a clear opportunity for a follow-up release that could add more content than could otherwise fit inside this slim 200-page chapbook-sized hardcover.

A map of the Fairelands, showing the city of Newfaire at the center as well as the other analogs for Appalachia, the Midwest, and more. Image: Marc Moureau/Darrington Press

The game’s primary setting is Newfaire, the capital city of the Fairelands. It’s a patchwork of London, Chicago, and Amsterdam, with ruined Atlantis buried underneath it all. Hubris and arcane experiments flooded the ancient city of Oldfaire, which remained vacant for more than a millennium until it was settled by refugees from The War of Embers, the game’s equivalent of the Crusades. The barrier between worlds remains thin in Newfaire, which is built above the ruins of Oldfaire, often causing supernatural occurrences to leak out. The world is otherwise very much like ours in the early 1900s — with the exception of an absence of institutionalized racism, homophobia, transphobia, and other common forms of prejudice present in our own timeline.

That very intentional act of revisionism could work to produce a diverse utopian setting akin to Dungeons & Dragons’ Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel, but Newfaire as described feels fairly homogeneous. A section on food and drink boils down to people loving beer and rice pilaf. The other key organizations beyond Candela Obscura itself boil down to a Christianity-like religion, a group of mad scientists, drug smugglers, an evil cult, the government, and the police. There’s also a group of immortals that seems like it should be way more developed, but they mostly just seem to be a way to make a few NPCs from other organizations extra intimidating. They’re less antagonists themselves in this book and more a prestige class for high-level boss enemies.

Candela Obscura makes vague efforts at exploring themes of social justice with plots involving corruption and police malfeasance, but they are hamstrung by the game’s explicit denial of intersectionality. For instance, a hallucinogen known as scarlet is outlawed and used to vilify the lower classes despite having been used for religious ceremonies and recreation for centuries. It’s a clear parallel to America’s Prohibition movement and its parallel crackdown on cannabis use, but doesn’t acknowledge that both were driven historically in our world by anti-immigrant sentiment.

Given the Fairelands have just won another devastating war, issues related to immigration would be a natural addition to the book’s list of themes, but they’re not touched upon. There’s some concern about the enemy nation of Otherwhere acquiring the electrical weapon that ultimately won The Last Great War, Candela Obscura’s equivalent to World War I, but the game also doesn’t have any hooks related to espionage. While the book talks about the threat of a militarized police force, law enforcement agents are more often presented as allies to the players looking to uncover mysteries than as unjust adversaries.

Spirits with the heads of horse skulls plague a vaguely European party in a gaslight alley. Image: Amelia Leonards/Darrington Press

Each of the book’s key locations offers a one-paragraph suggested assignment that could take players there, whether it’s trying to figure out why bodies are walking out of the cemetery or recovering medicine stolen from a warehouse. While some of them might bring in other organizations, there’s no real connecting plot or any answers given to where monsters come from or how most people have managed to avoid noticing them. The sample sessions play out like fairly bland procedurals with evocative imagery but no big twists.

Candela Obscura has solid art, mixing watercolors and sketches for depictions of the city and the horrors that haunt it. The most intriguing part of the whole book are the notes of a rogue member of Candela Obscura convinced that the organization should learn more about magical phenomena rather than locking them away, especially if it could help prevent another war. The idea is similar to the motivation of Warehouse 13 agent turned primary villain James MacPherson, played by the late, great Roger Rees.

That show understood the power of good episodic adventures based on real history tied together with a strong metaplot. Unfortunately, Candela Obscura doesn’t offer much in that regard. The world feels barely described, and there are no real answers to the mysteries presented in the metaplot. Without those tools, it’s really up to the game master to flesh out a session into something engaging and scary rather than a bland supernatural procedural. That might make a great way for the Critical Role crew to show off their acting talents, but it doesn’t seem as useful for someone who just wants to run a game at home with their friends.

Candela Obscura Core Rulebook was reviewed using a pre-release copy provided by Darrington Press. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.


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